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A Fishing Tale: Brown Bears & Big Sockeyes

Posted on June 21st, 2013

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Editor’s Note: Where has Jim DuFresne been? Turns out MichiganTrailMaps.com’s main blogger has been in Alaska the past couple of weeks catching sockeye salmon. Here is his  latest tale from the Final Frontier. Don’t for get to check out his books at our e-shop, including 12 Classic Trout Streams in Michigan.

By Jim DuFresne

The salmon runs in Alaska are legendary, well known by fly fishermen around the world. Alaska also has more bears than the rest of the states combined, including 100,000 black bears and more than 30,000 brown bears or 95% of the U.S. population.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

The first thing you learn when you arrive in the 49th State to fish for salmon is that where there is one there’s usually the other. Such was the case at the Russian River Campground, a Chugach National Forest facility in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula.

I arrived at this 80-site campground with Ed Fogels, a good friend from Anchorage, on June 10 to a surreal scene. Every site was filled, most having been reserved six months in advance, ours included, because the opener for sockeye salmon was that night at 12:01 a.m.

The Russian River with its fly-fishing-only regulation is one of the most popular sockeye salmon streams in Alaska, the reason strolling through the campground were men, women and entire families outfitted in waders and vests, carrying a rod or two.

Bear Spray

An angler with his canister of pepper spray.

But this was also bear country, the signs of that were everywhere. Literally. Every site had a large, metal bear box for food storage with a sign WARNING Bears In The Area! Every picnic table had a yellow sign stapled to it that said WARNING Food & Odors Attract Bears! The campground dumpster had a sign asking you to be responsible with your garbage and Help Keep Alaska’s Bears Wild.

The most obvious sign you were in bear country was hanging on the wading belt of almost every angler; a can of pepper spray.

Brown bears, big fish –  sockeyes run between six and 12 pounds –  and a campground full of anglers with a serious case of salmon fever. The level of anticipated excitement for this opener was amazing.

We passed up the 12:01 start. Ed’s theory is that the best time to be on the water was during a lull between the midnight anglers and those who rather wait until a more civilized time to fish like after their first cup of coffee in the morning. We arrived at the river at 4 a.m.

It had been light for almost an hour when I stepped into the Russian River for the first time, clutching an eight-weight rod. Two things immediately challenged me; casting a fly line rigged with 16-pound tippet and eight 3/0 split shots on it and spotting the salmon, the blue ghosts, as Ed called them, among the boulders and rocks in the Russian.

I struggled all morning with both. By early afternoon I was alone at a hole, still looking for my first hook-up when my fly snagged a boulder in the middle of the river and I lost my hook, split shots and tippet. I re-rigged, lost that one a few minutes later and re-rigged again.

When my line stopped in the swift current yet again I gave my rod a hard yank in frustration, thinking I was on the verge of losing my third fly in less than 30 minutes. That’s when a 10-pound-plus sockeye leaped clear out of the river, a starling acrobatic display that was so close I could see my purple streamer hooked in the corner of its mouth.

I almost wet my waders.

“I call them sticks of dynamite,” the angler camping next to us said that evening. “They’re that explosive.”

Angler with a sockeye

An angler fights a sockeye salmon in Alaska’s Russian River.

The fish leaped again and again as I fanatically reeled in my excess line. Then it took off downstream and there was little I could do to stop my reel from spinning wildly.

At this point I experienced something I never have on the Au Sable catching my usual 10 or 12-inch trout; I was down to my backing. There, stretched out a 100 feet downriver from me, was my $80 fly line with one end tethered to a rampaging sockeye and the other to my backing by a knot that I may or may not have taken the time to tie properly.

I pumped my rod wildly as if I was deep sea fishing to work in my line and then fought that fish for at least 10 minutes before it broke off, almost effortlessly it seemed.

I lost that sockeye but I was hooked.

On Wednesday I hooked and landed – netting the fish was often the most challenging aspect – my limit of three sockeyes. On Thursday I hooked into 16 sockeyes before I was able to land the first one. I caught my limit that day as well.

I’m basically a catch-and-release angler, either it’s the law like the Au Sable Holy Waters or I’m just too lazy to deal with the bluegills and crappies I land belly boating. I’ll never keep a bass only because I can’t fathom killing something that just gave me so much pleasure on a fly rod.

But somehow on the Russian it seemed like the right thing to do. If you don’t catch and eat that salmon a bear will or bald eagles, seagulls, foxes and mergansers will after it spawns. One thing for sure, that fish is not returning to the ocean from which it came.

Anglers with sockeye salmon.

Anglers hold a stringer of sockeye salmon from Alaska’s Russian River.

You can “Disney-ify” this and call it the circle of life. Or you can simple acknowledge that salmon is the protein that sustains all of Alaska, residents and wildlife alike.

On Friday when I reached the river at 5 a.m. I was the only one around. The anglers from opening day had to rush back to Anchorage for at least a morning at the office. The weekend crowd hadn’t shown up yet.

I was casting into my hole when I saw something move in the corner of my eye. It was my first bear, standing on the opposite bank a 150 yards up stream. It was staring into the water, doing basically what I was trying to do, spot a sockeye.

Signs around the campground and the river say that if a bear approaches, give up your hole. If you have a fish on, cut your line. If the bruin is still staring at you, toss that stringer of salmon into the river.

I just watched him. You never want to have an encounter with a 500-pound brown bear but you sure hate to leave Alaska without seeing one. I watched that bear for 10 minutes until it left the river and disappeared into the woods.

That’s when the first sockeye of the day hit my purple streamer.

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